How Sabathia Reformed his Career

I love rooting for late career resurgences. Seeing a player with diminished skills, who likely considered retirement, turn their career around for a few more years instills a feeling of hope. From an analytics perspective, how the player resurrects his career is fascinating.

A few years ago, a season after undergoing arthroscopic debridement surgery, CC Sabathia changed his style of pitching. He found a cutter. In 2016, CC began to ditch his four-seam fastball and replace it with a cutter. He learned his cutter from former teammates that may have had decent careers: Mariani Rivera and Andy Pettitte, one of whom is very likely a first ballot Hall of Famerlargely because of this pitch. Sabathia’s cutter drove the resurrection of his career.

Note: The pitch type data is from Pitch Info, hosted on Fangraphs. Performance data is also from Fangraphs. Tunneling information is from Baseball Prospectus, through May 12th, 2018.


CC Sabathia has been changing his pitch distribution quite a bit over the last five-plus seasons. The change that revitalized his career, though, came during the 2015 offseason. His four-seam fastball usage dropped from 28.3% to almost nothing at 2%, while his cutter usage increased from 0.6% to 31.6%. Since 2016, CC has increased his slider and cutter usage while decreased his sinker and change up usage.


Statistical Summaries: ERA- and FIP- measure ERA and FIP, compare them to the league average, and normalize them to 100. An ERA- of 51, for example, is extremely good – it means CC Sabathia has an ERA 49% below league average. wOBA, or weighted On Base Average, is a batting average-like measure that combines a batter’s overall offensive contribution. R wOBA is wOBA from right handed batters against CC Sabathia, and (R-L) wOBA is the difference between righty and lefty wOBA against.

As CC’s cutter usage has increased, his performance has as well. Relative to league-average, his ERA and FIP have dropped annually since implementing a cutter. Each season he has used a cutter, CC has been above-average. I included innings pitched to indicate his surgical leave in 2014.

Most of this improvement has been driven by CC’s performance against right-handed batters. Righties had a .347 wOBA in 2013 and .370 wOBA in 2015 against Sabathia, both at least 54 points above lefty wOBA against him. Since adding a cutter, CC has lowered right handed batter wOBA against from .316 to .310 and now .278, with the largest gap between lefty and righty wOBA being 26 points.

Replacing a four seam fastball with a cutter has its benefits. A cutter runs in on the hands of a righty, inducing weak contact. It deceives batters, appearing as a fastball yet cuts glove side instead of running arm side. And for CC Sabathia, it tunnels well with his secondary pitches.

Pitch tunneling, in a basic sense, occurs when two pitches appear similar at the ‘point of no return,’ where the batter decides whether or not to swing. By the time a batter realizes he should or shouldn’t have swung, the second pitch would ideally be far from what he expected.

Below are two examples of pitch tunneling. These pitches were from at bats between Sabathia and Randal Grichuk early in 2018. CC tried to use his slider to set up the cutter. The dashed black lines are the pitch trajectories. The flags are the pitch destinations, while the smaller flags on the trajectories are pitch locations at Grichuk’s swing decision point.


The pitch sequence on the left was tunneled well. The two pitches are almost indistinguishable at the batter’s decision point. The sequence on the right, however, were poorly tunneled. It’s clear that the pitches thrown were different types and in different locations.

Statistical summaries: PreMax measures the average distance, in inches, apart the two tunneled pitches are at the batters’ decision point. The average PreMax is said to be about 1.54 inches. PlatePreRatio measures the ratio between the average perceived distance and average actual distance between the tunneled pitches at the plate. The perceived distance is the distance the batter expects will be between the pitches when they reach the plate. The median PlatePreRatio in 2018 is 11.8. This ratio represents how many times further the pitches are apart than expected. For example, the average pitch tunnel sequence results in pitches being 11.8 times further apart than expected.


CC Sabathia has improved his PlatePreRatios through replacing his four seam fastball with a cutter. He also has improved his tunneling skills with his cutter over time, as he has gotten more comfortable using it and as he has gotten further from his surgery. CC’s tunneled pitches are much further apart at the plate than expected when he leads with a cutter instead of a four seamer. The current assumed average PreMax is 1.54 inches, of which Sabathia is above with his cutter, though over time he is improving. Quite a bit of research is needed to better understand pitch tunnels, but it is generally assumed that tunnels with higher PlatePreRatios, all else being equal (pitch types, movement, location, PreMax), are harder to hit and are more successful.

One thing to note, though, is that not everything improved for Sabathia in regards to pitch tunnels. PreMax, in my opinion, is very important for pitch tunnels – perhaps mores than PlatePreRatio. Regardless of how far apart two pitches end up compared to their expected destinations, if the pitches can be clearly identified prior to the swing decision time, the batter can make a much more educated decision. Ideally, a batter decides whether or not to swing purely based on the perceived location and his opinion of whether or not he can make quality contact. Pitches with smaller PreMax measures appear more similarly and can deceive the batter. Pitches with higher PreMax measures provide the batters with more information – whether it be pitch type (which could influence a batter to not swing if he knows he struggles against it) or a variable like pitch location, which lowers the PlatePreRatio through providing a more accurate perceived distance.

All three of Sabathia’s commonly-used pitch tunnels, listed above, became more differentiable when the cutter replaced CC’s four seam. More research is needed to understand if this is actually bad, like I theorize, or if the PlatePreRatio increase is enough to offset any of the hypothesized issues with higher PreMax tunnels.

If Sabathia asked me for help (which is shiny 51 ERA- in 2018 suggests he doesn’t need), I would recommend that he begin to pitch backwards more often. See the table below:


Pitching backwards is when a pitcher uses his secondary pitches initially instead of their speedier offerings. The above table compares CC Sabathia’s tunneling sequences when his cutter is the first pitch to when his cutter is the second pitch. Each of his cutter-second tunnel sequences has better PreMax distances and better PlatePreRatios than his cutter-first sequences. As mentioned above, the average PreMax distance is 1.54 inches, of which Sabathia is below on two of his three secondary-cutter sequences. When leading with the cutter, all three of his sequences are further apart than average. Similarly, Sabathia’s sequences have a higher PlatePreRatio when leading with the secondary than when leading with the cutter.

CC Sabathia had to transform his game to adapt to his diminishing velocity. He’s excelled at this, utilizing the cutter instead of the four seam fastball. Despite his changed approach and success, there are ways he could improve, such as pitching backwards with tunnels. He plans to retire if the Yankees win the World Series, though. He’s had a storied career, and may be HOF bound.

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C.C. put down the bottle a few years ago – best career move he ever made and good for him and his family
I wish him all the best!